“Look for someone who’s not too short, not too tall, not too fat…and with a beard,” said Nick as we passed street vendors showcasing dozens of pieces of glistening jewelry in Piazza Sant’Egidio. “That’s what he told me on the phone.”
We cautiously approached the church, Santa Maria de Trastevere, where vespers were about to begin, peeling our eyes for an otherwise average figure. Within a minute, a man with a warm, sincere smile approached us. “I’m Paolo,” he said, “and I love Notre Dame.” Paolo wanted to know all about our project and help however he could—he had agreed to this meeting less than 24 hours before.
Paolo is a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay organization recognized by the Church for their commitment to social service. Most recently, the Community has taken under their wings the 12 refugees Pope Francis brought back from Lesbos. “You’re welcome to join for vespers,” Paolo told us, “but we only have a Spanish translator tonight,” he said with a slight frown. We followed him inside, finding a pew towards the front, on the right half of the cathedral. “Try not to fall asleep,” he joked.
Vespers brought together the entire community in prayer.
Resonating softly throughout the church,
the voices of the Italian choir lulled us toward “restful meditation,”
to use the term generously.
As the service came to a close, Paolo explained to us the reading from Corinthians and glanced about, trying to pinpoint a good place to have our meeting. He led us back outside and down about a block, in an area slightly removed from the sounds of the tourists milling about. Paolo tapped a few digits into a keypad next to a door and gave it a hefty nudge. “Talk about borders,” he said, “Welcome to the Vatican.” We were actually a mile from St. Peter’s Square, but now inside the gates of the Community, legally considered part of the Vatican.
We walked into a dark, bare vestibule and through a sliding door where you had to rotate your shoulders to fit through. Paolo ushered us into a well lit room where a new radiator sat underneath an aged window, impressed slightly into the wall. Outside, the enclosed red-brick courtyard reflected the soft glow of the Trastevere night sky.
An Egyptian painting hung above Paolo’s seat, a simple chair that revealed the echoing acoustics of the room when you moved it. The folding door was left open and we could hear shuffling outside. “The choir will be practicing now,” Paolo apologized. But we didn’t mind—it felt like angels were joining us in discussion.
Paolo’s balding forehead shone brightly under the hanging light above. He was wearing a sweater, but you could see the buttons from his shirt protruding underneath. His reading glasses temporarily sat folded up in his shirt pocket.
“I’m proud that my country is spending its own money to help these people in the Mediterranean,” he began. Paolo was referring to Guardia Costiera, Italy’s Coast Guard, and Mare Nostrum, a discontinued project which brought aid to migrant vessels at sea. Currently, Guardia Costiera spends millions of Euros each year to patrol seemingly international waters, rescuing migrant boats on a daily basis.
Paolo was proudest, however, of the Community’s work in opening humanitarian corridors in Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Morroco—temporary zones that promote safe travel between borders. “If you give a possibility of safe entrance into Europe, you provide a sense of hope and people will be willing to wait,” he told us. The three humanitarian corridors have already offered safer means for getting to Italy, have cut down on human trafficking, and given the Italian government knowledge of the people entering their country before they even board the ships. Paolo mentioned that most migrants are already ready to risk their lives, so the government has two options: create a safe, regulated, and legal passage or one fraught with exploitation, uncertainty, and death.
Paolo stressed that the European Union was built upon solidarity, a foundation now at risk. “Our humanitarian corridors are just a first drop in the ocean,” he told us, “but I hope thet will encourage other nations to create a safer bridge between Europe and Africa.” Paolo mentioned that they had already seen an outpouring of support from the local community, mentioning that neighbors called and offered their homes for refugees upon hearing about the initiative.
“When you build walls,
you are not going to stop the world.”